Midseason quarterback rankings
Aaron Rodgers is the league's best quarterback midway through the 2011 season
Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Cam Newton round out top five
Tim Tebow would rank last if not for late-to-the-party Carson Palmer
* Rankings are based on this season's performance only.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: The fourth-year starter has his team off to a 7-0 start and is having a season for the ages. He has thrown for 20 scores with only three picks and is completing 71.5 percent of his passes. He has complete mastery of the offensive system, having played under coach Mike McCarthy for all but one of his seven seasons, and appears to be a nano-second ahead of the defense. It also helps that he has a deep and talented receiving corps.
2. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: If there's a quarterback big enough to put an offense on his back, the 6-foot-5, 241-pound Roethlisberger is he. The two-time Super Bowl champion has been lethal his last four games, throwing for 1,154 yards, 11 touchdowns and two picks, with a 67.1 completion percentage and a 110.4 passer rating. More impressive, he's playing with poise and discipline, things he struggled with at times in the past. Not surprisingly, the Steelers have won four in a row after a 2-2 start.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots: You know the bar of expectation is incredibly high when a 24-of-35, 198-yard, 2-TD, 0-interception performance is considered an off game -- which was definitely the case for Brady on Sunday at Pittsburgh. As much as people talk about Indianapolis' struggles without Peyton Manning, the thought of the Patriots (and their last-ranked defense) without Brady makes me shudder.
4. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills: He might not have been a household name coming into the season, but the Harvard grad definitely deserves a seat near the front of the class. He twice has rallied his team to victory after trailing by 18 points, ranks No. 2 in the league among fourth-quarter passers in rating (108.5) and completion percentage (70.6), and is fourth in passer rating (105.4) on third down. Is it any wonder the Bills signed him to a potential $59 million contract extension last month?
5. Cam Newton, Panthers: No offseason workouts, no contact with his coaches pre-training camp, no problem. He has thrown for 2,393 yards, 11 touchdowns, nine picks and rushed for seven scores. His team, which threw for just nine TDs last season, has only two wins, but his play has been impressive considering all the things working against him, including an injury-weakened defense.
6. Alex Smith, 49ers: Don't tell me about his past struggles. Few QBs are playing as efficiently as Smith, who has helped his team to a 6-1 record in large part because he's completing 63.2 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. He ranks second against the blitz with a 128.9 rating and is third among regulars with a 104.9 fourth-quarter rating. And please drop the game-manager moniker. His touchdown strike to Delanie Walker on fourth-and-goal in the final two minutes of a win at Detroit was a thing of beauty.
7. Drew Brees, Saints: It has been a grind for Brees, who, if you take away a 5-TD, 0-interception outing vs. the Colts two weeks ago, has managed 14 scores and 10 picks for the year. It was thought the arrival of rookie running back Mark Ingram would balance the offense, but Brees is shouldering an inordinate amount of the load. He has attempted at least 35 passes in every game, including 44 or more in six of them, which contrasts brightly with the Saints' Super Bowl-winning season two years ago, when he attempted at least 40 passes just three times.
The good news for New Orleans is that Brees is capable of getting hot. He ranks No. 1 with a 133.5 passer rating on third down and has the Saints tied for first in the loss column in the NFC South. The bad: Those 10 picks are tied for second-most in the league.
8. Eli Manning, Giants: He threw a career-high 25 interceptions last season and the Giants missed the playoffs. This year they're 5-2 and leading the NFC East largely because he has thrown only five picks, three of which came in a loss to the Seahawks. Manning is quietly on pace for one of his best seasons, with 13 TDs and a league-leading 119.3 fourth-quarter passing rating.
9. Michael Vick, Eagles: The Eagles rank No. 1 in total offense in part because Vick has done a nice job escaping pressure and distributing the ball. He has completed at least 20 passes to five players, while averaging 8.1 yards on 52 rushes. The Eagles are 3-4 (but winners of two in a row), but much of the blame can be placed at spots other than quarterback.
10. Matthew Stafford, Lions: Nineteen touchdowns, four interceptions, a 99.1 rating and, most importantly, a 6-2 record. Stafford has had a few bumps, but mostly he has done a good job of getting the ball to his playmakers, notably monster wideout Calvin Johnson. There is reason to pause, though. The former No. 1 pick has been sacked 16 times, which is somewhat worrisome for a player whose previous two seasons were cut short by injury.
11. Andy Dalton, Bengals: The TCU rookie is quickly developing a reputation as someone who doesn't make the same mistake twice. He's not as dynamic as Newton, who has thrown for roughly 900 more yards and two more touchdowns, but he doesn't need to take a lot of chances with a defense that ranks fifth overall. Bottom line for Dalton: His Bengals are 5-2 and leading the AFC North.
12. Matt Schaub, Texans: Since tossing a potentially devastating end-zone interception at the end of a 25-20 home loss to the Raiders, Schaub has led his team to two wins in three weeks -- all without All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson. The key has been ball security. Schaub has not thrown a pick in his last three games.
13. Mark Sanchez, Jets: I keep waiting on the moment when Sanchez will be viewed as a playmaker instead of a game-manager, but maybe it will never come. In 38 career starts he has thrown for three scores in a game just four times. Frustratingly, each time I'm ready to paraphrase Bill Parcells and say he is what he is, Sanchez flashes big-play ability, like when he threw for three scores against San Diego in Week 7.
14. Matt Cassel, Chiefs: After a horrendous start, Cassel has rallied Kansas City to four consecutive wins. His performances are often filled with long stretches of inertia, but he has made enough plays to lift the Chiefs into a three-way tie for first in the AFC West.
15. Philip Rivers, Chargers: He's a top-5 talent who isn't playing like it. His 11 interceptions not only lead the league but also are four shy of his career high. His fumble of the center exchange at the end of regulation Monday night cost the team a chance to attempt a winning field goal and resulted in the Chargers dropping into a three-way tie for first in the AFC West. He is on pace to finish with a career high in picks and a career low (as a full-time starter) in touchdowns. If he doesn't turn it around, neither will the Chargers, who've lost two in a row and host the undefeated Packers on Sunday.
16. Tony Romo, Cowboys: I'm surprised Jason Garrett still has a full head of hair coaching Romo, who is maddeningly inconsistent. One minute he looks like an elite quarterback who can lead Dallas to the Super Bowl, the next he looks like a college student majoring in brain freeze. Two of the Cowboys' three losses can be directly traced to his mental hiccups.
17. Matt Ryan, Falcons: This was supposed to be the year that Ryan elevated his game to elite status, but he has been held to one TD pass in each of his last five games. One of the problems is inconsistent pass protection; another is a philosophical struggle about whether the offense wants to lean on the running game or open up its passing attack after pulling off a blockbuster draft-day trade for wideout Julio Jones.
18. Matt Hasselbeck, Titans: The longtime Seahawk has made a smooth transition to Tennessee, where he has the Titans a half-game out of first place in the AFC South. If someone had told you before the season that Tennessee would have four times more wins than Chris Johnson has 100-yard rushing games (one) at this point, you probably wouldn't believe it. But they remain in contention because Hasselbeck has thrown for 11 TDs with six picks and ranks third in the AFC with a 105.3 passer rating on third down.
19. Jay Cutler, Bears: It's astounding he's still on the field after being sacked 11 times in the first two games. His stats aren't great -- nine touchdowns, six interceptions -- but he has led the Bears to wins in three of their last four games. It would be fun to see what he could do if Chicago ever gave him a legitimate No. 1 receiver and consistent protection up front.
20. Josh Freeman, Bucs: I'm a big fan of Freeman's, but he has not played up to his abilities. By his own admission he has forced throws downfield this season, which has contributed to him tying Brees for second-most in the league with 10 interceptions. That's four more than he threw all of last season. The positive: The Bucs are only a half game out of first place. The negative: They're unlikely to stay in contention if he doesn't improve his ball security.
21. Christian Ponder, Vikings: The rookie first-round pick has made the Vikings interesting again since replacing veteran Donovan McNabb after six games. The offense was stagnant through the first month and a half, converting on just 4 of 17 third downs. With Ponder at the controls, however, Minnesota has been good on 10 of 16 third downs. Coincidence? Think not.
22. Joe Flacco, Ravens: Baltimore thought he would take his game to the next level in his fourth season, but over his last four outings he has thrown for only one TD, with four interceptions, and is on pace to finish with the worst completion percentage and most interceptions of his career.
23. Colt McCoy, Browns: Instead of improving, the Browns' second-year starter appears to be regressing. It's not just the throws he's missing, but his decision-making. For instance, on Sunday at San Francisco he threw into obvious double coverage when the Browns were driving; he was picked off in the end zone. It hasn't helped that his receivers have been in and out of the lineup and running back Peyton Hillis has played in only four games because of illness or injury. Still, McCoy has to play better.
24. Kevin Kolb, Cardinals: The big trade that brought him from Philadelphia has produced only one win. Kolb has been uncomfortable and uncertain in the new offense, which requires him to hold the ball longer than he did in the Eagles' West Coast system. He also tended to lock onto Larry Fitzgerald for much of the first month. His development could be hindered by the case of turf toe he suffered last week.
25. Sam Bradford, Rams: He was expected to flourish under the direction of new coordinator Josh McDaniels, but the results haven't been there. The offense ranks 31st in scoring and Bradford, who has missed the past two games with an ankle injury, has thrown for only three scores with two picks. Perhaps the addition of Brandon Lloyd will accelerate his development.
26. Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks: It's hard to be too critical because he's playing behind one of the game's least-experienced lines, and for part of the early season he was without marquee free-agent signee Sidney Rice, the Vikings' former deep-threat wideout.
27. Blaine Gabbert: Perhaps the Jaguars promoted him into the starting lineup to remind us that it's not as easy as Newton and Ponder are making it look for rookies to come in and play well immediately.
28. Curtis Painter, Colts: It's so easy to blame the first-year starter for Indianapolis' failure to win a game this season, but the problems extend far beyond Painter, who has thrown for five TDs with four picks and a 75.1 rating. Is he Peyton Manning? Of course not. But nor is he as bad as the players listed immediately beneath him in these rankings. In fact, his third-down passer rating and completion percentage are better than Flacco's.
29. Matt Moore, Dolphins: He was backing up Chad Henne, so did you really expect him to be any higher on the list?
30. Rex Grossman/John Beck: If you're into turnovers, these are your guys. They've combined to throw a league-high 12 interceptions. In fact, the Redskins have thrown at least one pick in every game but the season opener.
31. Tim Tebow, Broncos: In both starts this season he has had fewer than 100 yards passing entering the fourth quarter. Worse, he often looks completely confused about where to go with the football. He's a great guy and has all the intangibles you could want in a player, but it's painful watching him at the controls of a passing attack.
32. Carson Palmer, Raiders: You have to earn your way in these rankings, and Palmer will occupy the bottom spot until he actually starts a game -- which will be Sunday against the Broncos.